06 August 2013

How Long?

I’m in Canada on “vacation”—i.e., on duty with my children 24 hours a day while we visit family. I have to, once again, pause between sections of Significance: I have been transported back to 2003, where the only access to the internet is via a single cable inconveniently located in the room where the kids sleep. Online research is, as they say, not happening.

Additionally, deprived of preschool hours, finding time to write has been challenging. Most of this post I wrote after being awakened at 3 a.m., unable to get back to sleep, tapping it out with two fingers on my iPhone.

In the absence of the internet, I have fallen back on my dad’s issues of The New Yorker. So I finally read Louis Menand’s article on the Supreme Court’s decision to strip the Voting Rights Act of its teeth, something I couldn’t bring myself to do at the time because of my overwhelming feelings of frustration and despair. 

Today marks the 48th anniversary of the VRA.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta Scott King, Reverend David Abernathy,
Mrs. Juanita Abernathy, and their children at the front of the Selma
to Montgomery March in 1965. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Menand doesn’t so much analyze the Court’s decision as retrace the steps of the Civil Rights Movement that led to the VRA. His words bring it vividly back: the unbridled use of state power coupled with vigilantism to terrorize the Black population of the South. Beatings. Shootings. Firebombings. Lynchings.

(Note to pro-gun people: the era of the Civil Rights Movement saw private citizens wield guns far more effectively as instruments of terror rather than as defense against it. Imagine if the Klan couldn’t access guns.)

I am, of course, interested in how the leadership developed and adapted the strategy to realize Civil Rights, a delicate balance of economic pressure through boycotts and international pressure sparked by the horrifying footage of repression in action—exactly the opposite image the White House desired during the Cold War.

But I’m also curious about the foot soldiers of the movement, whose day-to-day logistics are rarely documented. How did each family organize their participation in the movement? Who in the family attended the meetings? Who watched the kids? Extended family? Neighbors? Or did they take them along? (Clearly they did sometimes, since we have images of children blasted by firehoses, set upon by dogs, and shocked with electric prods.)

I frankly cannot imagine an equivalent mass movement taking place today. The last gun control rally I attended, on the six-month anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre in Newtown, was held from 5 to 7 p.m. We stood on the corner of a busy intersection and held signs. When it was over, we all went home. In the course of those two hours, a maximum of 150 people attended.

I don’t mean this as a criticism of the organizers, who, I know, meet regularly and devote so much of their time and energy into making real change on gun control in the U.S. Nor can I fault the participants, who not only show up at the rallies, but also write letters, sign petitions, and donate money to end gun violence. 

One difficulty I see is that few of us are as single-issue as African Americans were on the topic of Civil Rights. Segregation affected every African American personally and outweighed any other injustice. Facing death at the hands of a state trooper seemed a reasonable risk to end the possibility of being dragged from your house and lynched in the dark of night. 

In contrast, my activism includes GLBT rights, immigrant rights, food policy, regulation of toxic chemicals, use of drones, Edward Snowden and the NSA surveillance policy, the targeting of Assata Shakur, reproductive rights, workers’ rights, gun control, and on and on. Not because I am somehow more aware or more enlightened, but because no one is going to kill me, or my family, or my friends over any one of these issues. (This is not to say that some aren’t life-or-death issues—many are, but few of us, proportionally, will experience it as immediate, direct terror.) The complexity of our society now can mean more freedoms, but it also multiplies the ways that these freedoms can be picked away or assaulted, often indirectly or surreptitiously. 

A second factor I see is time. For example, I am ancient enough to remember when I could call a business or a company and a living person would answer the phone. Then companies realized they could use technology to save labor costs, but that labor of “directing a call” then got passed to us, the “consumers.” Whether we saved money on products because companies cut their labor costs is debatable. That they stole our time is demonstrable. This kind of “savings” to corporations and “costs” to the rest of us continues in ways large and small. Consequently, we now spend more of our lives as consumers than as citizens. 

When we are working more than eight hours a day- 
When we spend hours in our cars commuting between our homes and our jobs- 
When our work follows us home and occupies our “leisure” time- 
When we care for our children alone, far from the support of extended family- 

How can we take the time not just to write letters, but to demonstrate in the state house, attend a march, gather for movement meetings—not just once in a while, but for days and years until the campaign is won? How long does it take to establish our rights? It takes decades of unrelenting effort: the accumulated minutes, hours, days, and years of thousands of people’s lives. We give our time, and money, and work, and sometimes blood. How long does it take to strip those rights, and erode the landscape of equality for our children? As long as it takes a decision to be read, and for the gavel to bang down.



People for the American Way

The Nation

And, as always, contact your representatives directly via e-mail, Facebook, and/or Twitter. For the greatest impact, I kick it old school via snail mail. 


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